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Who am I?

Posted by Dave Bull at   8:47 PM, July 23, 2014 [Permalink]

Here's an entire blog post with no images ... can you stand it?

Let's have a break from posts about the upcoming new shop, and deal with an issue that I have been postponing for a long time, but which I can't put off for much longer ... the question of 'identity'. Who am I? (publicly, that is)

A quick recap of the background, for those who aren't familiar with it:

- after some years of training and preparation, I sent my first prints out into the world in 1989, coincidentally the first year of the Heisei era here in Japan. There was no internet; I held an exhibition in Tokyo each January under my own name - 'woodblock prints by David Bull', taking subscription orders from the attendees (mostly Japanese, with a smattering of foreign residents of Tokyo also becoming subscribers). These were the days of making the Hyakunin Isshu series, and the prints I sent out had my signature, along with an embossing showing: Design - Katsukawa Shunsho / Carving-Printing - David Bull.

- in the summer of 1997, I got connected to the internet, and created a 'home page' for my prints, using the space provided for me by my ISP - Asahi-net - here in Tokyo.

- in May of 1998, I registered the domain name woodblock.com, and moved my website to that location, using servers in the US (far cheaper than the Japanese services at that time). 'Woodblock.com' kind of became my 'brand'.

- in 2000/01 I moved my residence to Ome, and because the building had a separate room for a workshop, and also bordered a small river, I began using the term 'Seseragi Studio' ('Studio of the Rippling Brook' might be a literal translation ...) in the materials that accompanied the prints going out. The poets series was now over, and I was making the Surimono Albums series of reproductions. On these prints I embossed a 'baren' mark, and also added my signature. All the work - carving and printing - was done by me personally. There were no assistants of any kind.

- in the spring of 2006, I decided to widen my world a bit, and began issuing some prints made in cooperation with other people (the first printer I worked with was Shinkichi Numabe, and the first outside designer was Gary Luedke). In order to differentiate these prints from my personal (100% self-produced work) I sold them under the brand name Mokuhankan. 'moku han' is literally 'wood block', and the 'kan' is a term implying a (rather substantial) place where that activity takes place. ('Bijutsukan' - Art Museum - is thus 'place of the arts' ... 'Toshokan' - Library - is 'place of reading materials' ... etc. etc.). I registered the domain name mokuhankan.com, and later the Japanese version mokuhankan.jp.

- I added a few prints to the Mokuhankan catalogue, but over the next couple of years, as my personal printmaking didn't go so well (both the scroll project and the My Solitudes project were minimally subscribed, and also took far longer to produce than anticipated), I was in the red for quite a long while, and the Mokuhankan project languished.

- My 'Mystique of the Japanese Print' series (2010-11) was far more successful, and put my bank account back into a more healthy situation. In addition to this, I was facing an oncoming 'milestone' in my personal life. I was about to become 60. That's no big deal these days of course, but it did seem to be that it was time to make some decisions. Namely decide between two possible majorly different life streams:
- keep going as a 'solo' craftsman. Some years the earnings would be good, some years bad ... no pension ... and an inevitable slow degradation in the ability to produce work.
- try and take the whole venture to a different 'level'. Hire people; train people; publish prints produced by other workers; build a structure that would (hopefully) be able to continue operating once I was no longer able to be productive myself. Within that (stable) structure, I could 'run my time out' peacefully, and the degradation of my own personal skills wouldn't matter so much, as I would be surrounded by capable people.

- So in the spring/summer of 2011 I decided to give it a go, and hired the first trainees for Mokuhankan. (These events are all covered in a lot of detail in the back postings on the Mokuhankan Conversations blog, accessible from the 'Table of Contents').

- At this point we don't need to get into the dramatic ups and downs of the next few years; we nearly hit bottom, but came up to the surface again after meeting Jed Henry, and are now doing quite well. If you have seen recent posts here, you know that we are now about to open a retail space / event space / workshop down in the Asakusa district of Tokyo.

But - to finally get to the point - we have to decide 'who' we are. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the brand name 'Mokuhankan' that I created a few years back has some major problems:
- it's meaningless to people who don't know what it means (if you see what I mean ...)
- even for people who do have some idea of what it means, it's an overly long word, and difficult to remember.
- the symbol I chose for our logo mark (the baren you see at the top of every page of our site) is meaningless to people who don't know what it is. I showed a Photoshop mockup of a proposed sign for our building a while back, but more than a couple of people have suggested quite strongly that I not do that, because most passers-by won't have a clue what's behind it. People have suggested I use a large illustration of some famous Hokusai print ... something recognizable by everybody who comes by. (NO! Not in thousand years will I do _that_!)

Should I abandon 'Mokuhankan' and go back to using my own name? I really don't want to do that, for a couple of reasons:
1) I have kept my own name (and signature) strictly for prints that I myself produced (all carving and all printing). I don't want to confuse that issue ... I am very proud of that work, and am terrified that future viewers will be saying, "Oh, that Dave Bull guy ... you know of course that he didn't do the work himself. He hired people to work for him ..." To avoid this, I intend to maintain an absolute separation between the 'Seseragi Studio' work - with my signature and baren embossment, and which I produce totally alone - and the Mokuhankan work, which is 'all hands on deck' ...
2) what happens later, when I'm no longer part of the picture?

So there we have the conundrum - what identity to use for this venture moving forward. It's clearly a decision that has to be made as soon as possible. What should the sign say; how should we identify ourselves; what web address should we use ... who are we?

1) Mokuhankan - home of fine woodblock prints. (URL: mokuhankan.com)

2) David Bull, woodblock printmaker (URL: woodblock.com)

3) Maybe we could even use the domain as the business name - a large sign reading [WOODBLOCK.COM] - surely people could remember that one.

4) Starting just yesterday, a new option became available: [WOODBLOCK.TOKYO] That's also easy to remember, although I have no idea if the use of .tokyo as the domain name would just be too confusing, as everybody is used to the standardized .com style ... (Try typing the words woodblock.tokyo into your browser location bar ... I think it should have propagated through the DNS system by now ...)

Anyway, I would very much like to hear your thoughts and advice on this question. I myself really have affection for the Mokuhankan brand that I have created over the past eight years or so, and am resisting the idea of abandoning it. But if it won't work in the marketplace, then I should clearly bite the bullet and move on.





Added by: Richard on July 23, 2014 9:45 PM

Maybe hire an icon artist to create an abstract adaptation of the baron to make it more icon-like and appealing to people who don't know what it is.

Mokuhankan is a very mysterious name to westerners and i think it works well as a shop title. In Japanese it makes simple, perfect sense... i don't know what a Japanese consumer would think.

I don't know about Japan, but here in Aus foreign shop titles are all the rage.

Added by: Guillaume on July 24, 2014 4:05 AM

Since your shop will probably become your biggest presence in Japan, it would be a shame to change such a fitting name for a more internationally recognizable one. Your own name probably wouldn't be any more recognizable than Mokuhankan, again, unless people know it already. Maybe just giving evocative names to your projects can help keep things easy to grasp for everyone, and since your non-Japan presence will be online it seems like a good compromise.

I agree the baren doesn't make for a good logo since it is not very recognizable, being more or less a dark circle with a beige line going through and framing it. Something more stylized may be better and more exciting as Richard said.

As far as your web presence, I feel there should be some consolidation with perhaps 2 sites in total. One for your personal projects and one for your business. I was still discovering parts of your sites months after finding them. The sheer quantity of web pages and content you've produced over the years is incredible, but now they are all over the place in terms of theme and technology (PHP in some, HTML others, HTML+CSS sometimes). Some good content is buried, and your shop could be more visually appealing considering how beautiful the items are (giving more real estate to the prints themselves). I think keeping as much as possible under one domain and making it easy to navigate would be extremely valuable. It's true this is very time consuming when you have no spare time, but perhaps I can lend a hand with that if you're interested.

Added by: Barbara Mason on July 24, 2014 6:57 AM

You are so sneaky...we immediately went to woodblock.tokyo to see what was there...very clever.
I think you should keep Mokuhankan...everyone in Japan will know what it means and foreigners will learn...as long as you have a tag line of
"Fine, original handmade prints" of something like that to identify it to those who haven't a clue what it means in Japanese. As far as a logo...that is trickier...why not have Jed design you a chibi with a carving knife and block? or baren and print?
You see where I am going with this...it will draw in the younger folks and us ancient people will also appreciate it.

Added by: Anita Cage on July 24, 2014 2:12 PM

The barren shape might work as a good frame for the sign. Can you combine the (large font) Mokuhankan name with a smaller "woodblock.com" line on the building sign and marketing materials and use an additional banner or poster-like sign or sidebar to contain (changeable) text with topical or more specific information. Somewhere on the sign and in all material there should be your name, as well, I think.

I, too, am very fond of the Mokuhankan brand and agree entirely with your reasoning about your name and the Seseragi Studio identity. I differentiate the things that you have done yourself and it has become difficult to obtain your work now on older items which are in reprinting. For example, I bought a Surimono print for a gift and, although it was lovely, I was sorry to see it was not printed by you. I am becoming comfortable with that though and know that I can't expect 100% David Bull in the Mokuhankan prints. You've got a lot of time and press invested in this distinction and I am comfortable with it. I do know that not everyone reads the fine print but you won't ever appeal to everyone, you are Mokuhankan, I think. I see you holding court there in your old age with young carvers, printers and customers seeking you out as a guru, a beloved non-Japanese Japanese national treasure.

I am not clear about one thing. Does this mean the end of the Seseragi Studio--are you moving entirely from that building?

Added by: Jennifer Martindale on July 24, 2014 7:29 PM

I agree that your own name should be reserved for the work you have created the whole input, thus keeping the identity for purchasers 'knowing what they have bought'. If not too complicated I rather like the combination of Mokuhankan for the exoticism and Woodblock.com for its accessibility so perhaps the use of both in the branding would cross all the cultures. Woodblock.com is the most easily remembered for non-Japanese.
I do like the suggestion of a chibi style pic of a baren being used showing at a glimpse the Japanese nature and the handmade #no printing press# element. Again the dot com ending is more memorable than the dot Tokyo one.
Will you be able to let us have a little look round during the Conference in September?? Even with the builders in we are all so fascinated by this new venture, I cannot be alone in hoping for a little peek.

Added by: Dave on July 24, 2014 8:38 PM

As far as your web presence, I feel there should be some consolidation ...

Oh, the websites ... what a stupendous mess it all is. There are pages in there still untouched from the original code produced back in 1997 ... no CSS, no Doctypes, no nothing ... I haven't a clue what to do with it all.

I did begin to work on this problem a couple of years ago, when I spent quite a lot of time creating what I thought would be the 'model' for my web presence going forward - the 'wide screen' version of the Mokuhankan site. But of course I did that just as the mobile era was arriving ... and well over half of the visitors to the sites are now viewing on a tiny smartphone screen ... making my work totally redundant ...

are you moving entirely from that building?

No no ... nothing is changing at this end at all. This will be my home, all the packing/shipping will happen here, two of the five printers will continue to work here (the people who live locally), and of course all our woodblocks, etc. will remain here.

If the business really does well over the next few years, and we start to develop something like the vision that we have been talking about, then at some point we might be consolidating everything in one structure. But it would need to be quite a sizeable place, and I doubt that we would ever be able to afford such a thing downtown ...

Will you be able to let us have a little look round during the Conference in September?

I hadn't thought about that ... the timing isn't good, for sure. We start construction on or about the 1st of September, and the conference starts on the 10th, so there certainly won't be anything to see except piles of construction materials and gaping holes in the walls. No Print Parties, I'm afraid!

But I see no reason why people can't drop in and poke around ... I've also had a few inquiries from conference attendees about coming out to Ome to see this place, so I guess that when we get closer, I'll probably post some kind of schedule showing where I'll be during that week, so that people can make their own various visit plans ...

Added by: George Jarvis on July 25, 2014 7:16 PM

I agree with Richard's assessment.
Mokuhankan is clear and memorable in Japanese, it has a nice sound and it has the right amount of "Japanese authenticity" to appeal to a worldwide base of collectors.

Added by: Sharri on July 27, 2014 1:26 AM

I agree that keeping Mokuhankan makes perfect sense in Japan - no so much outside the country, though. A tag line would clear most of that up - something like Traditional Woodblock Prints. As for the Baren logo - it would need to be either a hand on the baren (although that may not mean anymore to non-printer people) or something as simple as a stylized M with a faded woodgrain or baren behind it.

Wish I could come to the conference, but I have other travel plans that don't coincide. Besides, I'm getting too old for more than one long trip a year. The best of luck with the new ventures. I am so impressed with what you've done so far. You have exceeded all expectations for such a young squirt!

Added by: Margaret Maloney on July 27, 2014 1:36 PM

For an English sign, I would go with one that says:

Traditional Woodblock Prints

with the tagline not much smaller than the name itself.

For a logo: were I you, I would see if Jed would draw an illustration with clean lines (i.e. easily reproducible at large and small sizes) of you at your desk, in profile, either carving (as in the photo on your website's front page) or using your baren.

You might be surprised by how identifiable a logo based on you would be! With your round, dark hairstyle, and your triangular-ish (in profile), much lighter beard, you have an iconic look. What better way to convey the spirit of the endeavor than to have it represented by the craftsman himself?

Added by: julio on July 29, 2014 2:57 AM

As a long time collector/subscriber, admirer, friend....I have really enjoyed the wonderful ride following your printmaking career since 1997 with all the ups and downs. All that excitement waiting at the end of each subscription to see what challenging new ideas you would go into next !

I am so happy for you Dave that the new venture has taken off so well and that your plans are coming true. No issues here between the studio work and what work you put out yourself. I also like the names Mokuhankan and Seseragi Studio and IMO what you need is to create a logo for the studio that will be simple but also get-to-the point...


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